A huge survey show like Greater New York reveals the twin perils of inclusion: gathered under the banner of art, a scene made up of distinct practices is unnecessarily harmonized; and by its very eclecticism, the institution asserts its neutrality by implying that nothing has been left out. Difference is reduced to mere diversity. The often antagonistic camps of the art world appear as mere aesthetic variations, getting along very nicely in the universalized sphere of the museum. In this case, it’s appropriate that the building is a former public school. Like school, participation is mandatory, all distinctions removed.
There is no clear thematic or conceptual preoccupation that unites the enthusiastically received work of the recent past. But the celebrated artists of the moment do share one thing: a conspicuously hyperactive work ethic that burdens every diligently handcrafted item with a meaning to be painstakingly deciphered. It feels a lot like work; having temporarily escaped the demands of the boss, we are now subject to the voracious demands of the artist—demands for attention, interpretation, love.
Arts and Crafts
Matthew Day Jackson’s Sepulcher (Viking Burial Ship), an allegory about the artist’s thirtieth birthday, is a meticulously constructed burial ship mounted on a podium of split logs. The ship’s full sail is stitched together from the artist’s t-shirts arranged in a Mondrian grid; an image of the earth seen from space (like the cover of the old Mother Earth Catalog) is on the sail’s reverse side.
Justin Lowe’s overwrought installation remix of Neil Young’s album On the Beach constructs a similarly elaborate narrative of 70s revivalism with the relentless energy of conspiracy theory: the lining of Lowe’s handmade teepee is a replica of the pattern behind the original album’s liner notes. A Neil Young mannequin stands nearby, dressed in yellow polyester. The labor-intensive process is evident, the scholarly devotion is impressive, and all of it is a little much.
These hyperliterate and well-crafted mazes of interpretation are achingly earnest in their belief that artworks can provide a direct avenue of communication from artist to viewer. The trouble is that what is being communicated is apparently so complex, not to say contrived, that the experience of the work has been determined almost entirely by the artist. The preferred mode of communication is a kind of sentimental and roundabout storytelling. Why all the details?
Dominic McGill gives us an old-timey history lesson, winding from the late ’60s to the present: The fascist state means to kill us all. We must organize—resistance to violence is the only way to answer violence? For McGill, the only way to answer the wild energy of his subject is, sadly, with a retreat to the studio, scripting out a history of the past thirty years painstakingly penciled with trees, protesters, airplanes.
Moving through a stretch of the exhibition from McGill’s wall-less paper mural, through a revival of ’70s photographic practice as impassive documentary by Atlas Group with Walid Raad, to Carol Bove’s melancholy arms-length evocation of the early ’70s, I found myself ready to cry. The consensus is clear: the fertile period of the early 1970s was the last moment when artists could imagine their activity assomething other or more than just making art. From our diminished position, a well-executed “artwork” is the most anyone seems capable of, or interested in.
The Unbearable Feeling of Hitting a Dark Wall
If there is a tendency to monumentalize the vitality of the era in which most of these artists were born, there is an opposite position in which ideas don’t die and don’t need to be memorialized. Banks Violette stages the cold theater of minimalism as a black metal theater of cruelty: the shiny black of a wall-sized surface reflects the visitor, backlit by a bank of fluorescents. The self-supporting surfaces of Violette’s installation face inward, creating an architectural space distinct from the placid installation of the rest of the show. Reference operates obliquely here rather than literally—the sculptures resist topicality by remaining stubbornly phenomenological, pointing to nothing beyond themselves.
Gardar Eide Einarsson, whose wall paintings of short graffiti texts appear in three locations throughout the building, does nothing to ingratiate the artist with his audience; one text reads, “You just don’t get it dad, so fuck off!?” But what looks at first glance like a spraypainted slogan is in fact clumsily rendered by hand. The piece refuses to gratify either the desire to identify with the author of the text or the attempt to appreciate the painting as a painting. We are left with nothing, and move on, which might be his point: a painting finally can’t communicate very much.
The most interesting work in the exhibition, including that of Einarsson and Violette, aims for an apparently superficial interface between the work and its viewers, dimly reflecting the spaces—institutional, architectural, and social-that, for a moment, the viewer and the work occupy together.
Crazy for Blowjobs
The best part of any exhibition, finally, is being away from work and home and walking around alone. Inevitably, one’s thoughts turn to sex, and are greeted by Torbjorn Rodland’s black banana, and a golden cum shot—a picture of a girl, eyes closed, with a honey-like syrup dripped across her face. Both are amazing album covers for music that hasn’t yet been written.
Laurel Nakadate’s exquisitely creepy video evokes sexual landscapes too vast for the limits of an exhibition. The premise of Nakadate’s video—enacting sexualized scenarios with men her father’s age—is so thinly scripted that it feels like an excuse to generate the experience of love. Shown on a small monitor, the piece speaks in the underwhelming language of home video; partial and suggestive, it leaves plenty to the imagination.
But what does it mean to walk through an exhibition of young art in New York without seeing any pictures of people fucking? It is disappointing to find that amidst the nostalgic revival of themes, working processes and mores of the 1970s, the sexual adventurousness of the times is back to being taboo, or maybe just asleep on the job.
In spite of the exhaustive efforts of the curatorial team to include a bit of everything, there are far more interesting things going on in greater New York than Greater New York. Even the best works didn’t offer much to look at, and often very little in particular to think about, suggesting that both artists and viewers live outside: outside the museum, outside the studio. The rumors attending the show—that some artists were dis-invited—are tantalizing, if only because they raise the corresponding possibility that some artists declined to participate. As PS1’s recent retrospective of Lee Lozano, an artist best known for withdrawing from the art world, boldly demonstrated, the institutions of art need artists more than artists need them. In the end, it feels good to quit.